Friday, February 24, 2012

A Calling as a Preacher

The path leading up to The Fault in Our Stars was long for John Green. In his early twenties, Green felt a calling as a preacher. He was pursuing his divinity degree when he decided that he should determine what the most difficult challenge would be for a man of the cloth, and see if this was the right path for him.

For five months, he served as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital, and worked with kids diagnosed with terminal illness and their families. “While I have great admiration for people who work with sick kids, I couldn’t handle it,” Green admitted. He went to work for a book review magazine instead, but he never forgot those children. Soon afterwards, he tried to write a novel about them, but it wasn’t coming together. So he wrote other books instead. That was more than 10 years ago.

In 2008, he met Esther, a 16-year-old diagnosed with cancer and a fan of his books and the Nerdfighters videos he creates with his brother, Hank. The author carefully pointed out at a gathering recently that Esther is not Hazel, his heroine, but Green’s experience of knowing Esther helped inform the dynamics of the characters in this book.

When Green first announced the title for The Fault in Our Stars on June 29, 2011, it shot to #1 on Amazon and (Barnes & Noble’s Website). The book would not be published until January 10, 2012. We’ve talked about the power of the Nerdfighters in the past. I believe they deserve credit for Green’s novel skyrocketing to the top of the Internet bestsellers' lists, sight unseen, six months prior to publication. The best part is that this book deserves that kind of acclaim. Hazel may be living with the fact that she is dying, but her sense of humor, her empathy for others—including her parents—and her boundless curiosity make us all want to live more meaningful lives.

John Green may have decided not to become a preacher with a collar, but his congregation today numbers in the near hundreds of thousands. And he’s the best kind of preacher, one who poses searching questions rather than trying to provide all the answers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Truth as Fiction Fodder

The 2012 Newbery-winning novel Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos stars a 12-year-old boy in the summer of 1962 named… Jack Gantos. Is it autobiography? No. Does Gantos the author incorporate factual elements of his boyhood experiences? Yes.

Gantos’s ability to spin aspects of his life into the fabric of his novels keeps us riveted. He also articulates well his process of keeping it clear in his own mind. I got a chance to speak with him before and after he won the Newbery Medal. In our conversation for School Library Journal (pre-Newbery), Gantos talked about his approach to incorporating autobiographical facts into his fiction: “It's my job to create a seamless world where readers don't know [what's] fact and [what's] fiction,” he said. “Otherwise, they'd trip over something that doesn't seem appropriate, or plausible, or wouldn't fit the setting or the characters' language. So you have to be sure that [thread-by-thread,] it's all of a piece, like a great Turkish rug.”

One of the things I loved most about Dead End in Norvelt was learning about the homestead communities started by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the input Eleanor Roosevelt had on the shaping of them. But the thing I enjoyed most about the book was the humor. And the character of Miss Volker, who wrote Norvelt’s obituaries but because of her acute arthritis used Jack as “her hands,” was the greatest source of that humor. In an interview for Shelf Awareness (post-Newbery), Gantos said there was indeed a Miss Volker in his life. His quote is an example of why the book is so funny: “I changed her name, but she's a real person,” Gantos said. “If you use the real name and attach unreal aspects to them, it seems a little unfair. Even if they're dead. Which she is. She was old then. Me, I don't care what I do with me. I'm making myself up as I go along.”

The other element of the book that I found so refreshing was the tension between Jack’s mother, who loved Norvelt and everything about its help-your-neighbor motto and would be happy to stay, and Jack’s father, who couldn’t wait to leave the place to go in search of “his piece of the American pie,” as Gantos put it. It was true for Jack then and it’s true for Gantos as an adult, that he could see the validity of both sides, and so Gantos the author presents both parents as sympathetic characters. That his parents stayed together despite this difference and the geographical moves they later made speaks to their strong connection. (Gantos’s father has since passed away, but his mother moved back to a town just outside of Norvelt.)

For readers and writers, Gantos’s books stand as strong examples of how events from one’s own life can be a starting point for weaving stories. The catalyst for this particular novel began when Gantos’s mother asked him to deliver the eulogy at her sister’s funeral, and as part of his eulogy, he spoke of Norvelt’s history. Several people in attendance said they hadn’t known about the town’s genesis as a model community. “It seemed to me that the great history of the town had lifted like a fog, and people no longer saw it,” Gantos said. “They didn't realize what the universal values of that town were, that it was a helping-hand town, and the government had that value as well. I started thinking more about Norvelt, and how valuable history was.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Making History Matter

How does Shane W. Evans make history matter to a picture book audience?

He does it by portraying a child just like them, born into a different time. And he shows children that the things that mattered then also matter now. Freedom. Family. Safety. Work that allows your parents to pay for your food and shelter. They mattered then; they matter now.

We March
takes children back to a hot August morning in 1963 as a family rises and prepares for their day. It is a day that will change history. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 250,000 people. Before Facebook, Twitter or text messages, as Shane Evans pointed out in an interview. People met at their churches and boarded buses and stood together and marched together for “jobs and freedom.” And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

A few weeks ago, Shane Evans won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his book Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom. The almost wordless story follows primarily one family on their journey through the Underground Railroad. If you look at the cover of his book Underground, it echoes the cover of We March in curious ways. The suns ray's make the covers look almost as if they are inversions of one another. I got a chance to ask Shane Evans about this in an interview, and he said he wanted to connect the two books visually. “I recognize that these two journeys, though hundreds of years apart, are still a continuum,” he said. “That pursuit of freedom goes on and on.”

The reasons for that August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are still with us. Today in our own country the “99%” (or “Occupy”) protests echo these themes and, on a global scale, so do the protests that began during the Arab Spring of 2011. Martin Luther King’s model of peaceful protests have resonated around the world as the gold standard for the way to effect change.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Celebrating Pura Belpré

Dora the Explorer has introduced hundreds of thousands of children to Spanish and English in an inviting, playful way. And that’s just what the girl hero does in My Colors, My World/Mis Colores, Mi Mundo, written and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. In making these enticing words familiar to youngest children, the author helps bridge the communication gap between young people who speak different languages.

My Colors, My World/Mis Colores, Mi Mundo won a Pura Belpré Honor in 2008. Pura Belpré (1899-1992) was the first Latina librarian to work for the New York Public Library. She served the Spanish-speaking populations of first Spanish Harlem in Manhattan and, later, the Bronx. How frightening it can be for a child in a land where his or her language is rarely spoken outside the home but then to discover someone like Pura Belpré, who welcomed young people in their native language and could introduce them to stories from their own heritage and also the stories of their new home.

The American Library Association (ALA) and REFORMA established the Pura Belpré Award to honor “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” One of the Pura Belpré books honored for illustration at ALA a little over a week ago was The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos, illustrated by Rafael López. (For a complete list of winners at ALA, visit our Home Page.)

So much of early childhood is about looking for affirmation from others like you, who like the things you do and who literally speak your language. Pura Belpré did so much to help children feel at home with themselves and their world, and to find the stories that helped them see their world reflected back to them. As Pura Belpré did so many years ago, the heroine of My Colors…/Mi Colores speaks directly to the child who’s holding her story, as if to say, this is my world, won’t you join me?